Lies had only contained four new songs, so by '90 it'd been three years since Guns n' Roses had issued a full-length album. By the summer, rumors were floating in music mags or on the radio about the band. They were breaking up or quitting. The new album would be all-acoustic. The new album would be all covers of punk songs. They've actually recorded a whole album, but hated it and pulled it from release, but you'll be able to get it as a Japanese import.
Finally, news I could trust came through via the best way to get news: a late-night phone call. Joel down in Iowa had heard the new Guns n' Roses song on the radio while hanging out down at the pool hall with his buddies. It was hard for him to hear it above the bar noise, but he said that it started out acoustic, then got loud 'n' fast, and then went back and forth between those two sounds. It was called "Civil War" and at the end Axl asks "what's so civil about war, anyway?" Joel hadn't caught any of the lyrics in detail, so we wondered whether the song was about war, or about America, or whether it was just about some domestic dispute that one of the Guns n' Roses boys was having with his model / starlet girlfriend.
A few weeks later, I'm driving home from up north. "Here's the new one from Guns n' Roses," the DJ announced - my hand was on the volume knob before I realized that it had moved from the steering wheel. Immediately I recognized, through Joel's description, that this was "Civil War." The song starts out with a quote from Cool Hand Luke, than the whistled chorus of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" joins a finger-picked acoustic guitar, while Axl Rose sings lyrics:
Electric guitar and drums drop in while Axl denounces the powers that be, rails against wars for money that are fought at the expense of the young and the poor, and condemns the lies that governments use to justify these wars to the people. The song then slows down as Axl recounts growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam War and how he was told it was a war for freedom.
The song has many Big Statements - it's to Guns n' Roses' credit that they pull them off without succumbing to lameness. (Axl also slips in a "they killed Kennedy" lyric, implying that Oswald didn't act alone!) The song winds down with Slash's guitar dying in the rain amongst the again-whistled "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Axl asks "what's so civil about war, anyway?"
By the middle of the song, I had pulled over to the side of the road on some backstreet in Elk River, trying to grasp what I was hearing and also worrying that the racket coming out of my car was going to bring an angry resident out into the night to see what was going on. After the song was over, I pulled back out onto the highway and left the radio off for awhile. The implications of the song were already dawning in my head.
Guns n' Roses had made an anti-war song that was up there with peace anthems like Megadeth's "Peace Sells," Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," and Metallica's "Disposable Heroes." Metal bands usually don't count for much in the political-cred area, they don't yap from Das Kapital for half an hour straight like Billy Bragg does in concert or put pictures of themselves getting arrested on the covers of their albums like Michelle Shocked. Sonically, of course, they're light-years ahead of neo-folkies, and their audience's core of teenagers who worked down at the Jiffy Lube would be the first ones drafted in a war to make the world safe for democracy. (Sorry, didn't mean to bring class into this...)
"Civil War" made Axl 1990's new Dylan. And now, strangely, Guns n' Roses was a band that gave a damn. They played "Civil War" at Farm Aid. The stakes had been raised. But no new album appeared on the heels of "Civil War."
On the night we started bombing Iraq, I went to Cheapo and bought Nobody's Child, a benefit album that included the then-unreleased "Civil War." I played it loudly in the dark of my apartment late that night.
Unfortunately, I hadn't yet been turned on to Joan Didion, so I went to a couple of peace rallies after the war broke out. At the first rally, it was like every lefty special-interest radical group in town had to speak. I knew that bombing Iraq had to do with poverty and lack of AIDS research on a certain level, but first things first. I didn't see why someone crying in a microphone over the pain of coming out of the closet had much to directly do with Iraqi citizens being slaughtered. Stop the fucking war, and then address all the other stuff. Towards the end of the rally, some college kids standing near me tried singing Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," bluffing their way through the verses because they only knew the chorus. (Just like me!)
At the second rally, I left early because the organizers insisted on playing some folk music from some third-world country. Which country, I don't remember - it wasn't Iraq. Most international folk music bores me no matter where it's from. I was thinking maybe if they played music that Americans actually listened to, music that was loud, music that was catchy, music that belonged to us as Americans, maybe they could appeal to middle Americans who wanted to stop a war. Silly me.
So you can call me xenophobic, just don't call me when the next world-music festival comes to town. Yawn.
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October '91. Release day. On lunch hour, I walked to Northern Lights and bought Guns n' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II albums. I left work early to go home and track them, picking up a sixer of Mickey's at the strip-mall liquor store behind my apartment building. After a few hours, emboldened by the malt liquor, I asked a girl out whose number I had been given. What I remember about our first conversation is me trying not to slur my speech, then hanging up and again playing the Use Your Illusion's loud. What I remember about our third-and-last date a couple of weeks later is listening to Van Morrison in the dark (and all that that entails) while we were sitting on my couch. I left a muted TV on and was keeping one eye on the Minnesota vs. Minnesota-Duluth hockey game. I remember thinking: Damn, Derek Plante rules.
The nineties had started off with what was gonna be the Feud of the Century: Axl Rose vs. Chuck D. It all started when Axl had been a racist on "One in a Million." Then a short time later, Public Enemy posse member Professor Griff was anti-Semitic in an interview. At the ensuing respond-to-the-furor press conference, Chuck D - no doubt feeling that Axl had gotten off easier than he did in the media-glare department - listed his responses to the media flames, and for his last point said something like "direct any further questions to Axl Rose." Classic! Axl responded in late 1991 (as GNR fans know, he likes to take his time) at the ending of Use Your Illusion's "Bad Apple," with a deliberate, sarcastically phrased "boyyyyyy" ala Flavor Flav. (What is forgotten about Professor Griff is that he later changed his views and sought penance. I read all about it in Rock & Rap Confidential in 1992. That Griff did this goes unremarked to this day - geez, we forgave Wallace!)
The Axl vs. Chuck D feud was great stuff for us up in the stands, and I was hoping that Guns n' Roses and Public Enemy would continue to exchange barbs through the nineties on all their albums. But Guns n' Roses disappeared, while Public Enemy continues on - they've been around long enough to both stage a comeback and be covered by - big surprise - British artists like Tricky and the Chemical Brothers.
The Illusion albums contained rap-worthy disses such as "Bad Obsession" ending with a sneered "punk," and the take-on-the-press (foreshadowing today's music headlines!) nastiness of "Get in the Ring." Illusion also has the great "Back Off Bitch," which I guess is misogynistic. Back in '91 I had this cute tease neighbor who wouldn't date me, but took enough time to stop by and "chat" (i.e. make my life miserable) every week or so when I was trying to guzzle beer and watch sports on TV. Once she chewed me out for monitoring a White Sox/Royals game while holding a conversation with her. I'm still not sure if she was mad because she wasn't getting enough attention, or because I was talented enough to perfectly maintain both activities at once (and work on a can of Busch - damn I was good!) One time she stopped by when I had "Back Off Bitch" cranked on the stereo. For once, she didn't hang around long. If that's what misogyny is, than misogyny feels damn good sometimes.
Illusion II ends with "My World," which is either a horrible attempt at rap, or a preview of the all-these-years-later techno/electronica/industrial/whatever "modern" album that various hangers-on have alluded to Axl working on these days. (Read all about in the July '99 issue of the much-improved Spin - Bob Guccione Jr., Axl's #1 target in "Get in the Ring" has since left - with Axl himself on the cover.)
But the Illusion albums didn't measure up to what Guns n' Roses had brought to the table previously. Drummer Steven Adler - the secret star of Appetite for Destruction (and who ironically stole a scene in the "Patience" video) - had been kicked out of the band (for the calling-the-kettle-black reason of doing too many drugs) and the songs would no longer swing like they had on Appetite. Illusion was also overproduced - both the rawness of Appetite's recording and Adler's drumming had left room for the soft/hard dynamics that made it compelling. Plus, on the new albums, Axl fell in love with the overdub. He sounded phony, especially when compared to the great histrionics of Appetite vocals like watch it bring you to your sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-knees-knees or why don't you just fuck off or lemme see ya try. The sprawling messes that were the Use Your Illusion albums were somewhat solved with compact disc - you could program or skip your way from two-hours-plus down to an hour's worth of good music.
Use Your Illusion II does contain one of my favorite lyrics, courtesy of Axl: "I've worked too hard for my illusions just to throw them all away."
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In the fall of '91, City Pages reviewed the Use Your Illusion albums. I read and re-read said review while at work, slowly getting pissed. I fired a letter (it got published) off to them, wondering why Terri Sutton kept mentioning someone named Camille Paglia and never mentioned Slash.
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Guitarist Izzy Stradlin quit Guns n' Roses in November of 1991. Some stats:
The Use Your Illusion albums had 28 songs written or co-written by members of GNR (Appetite for Destruction did not list individual songwriting credits); 43% (12 of 28) were written or co-written by Stradlin.
However, if you take out the total duds ("November Rain," "The Garden," "Coma," "Get in the Ring," and "My World" - all of which Stradlin had no part in,) and don't count "Don't Cry" twice (it was included in two versions with different lyrics) that means Izzy had a part in writing 55% (12 of 22) of the good songs.
One more stat: Number of Guns n' Roses albums released containing any original material since the departure of Izzy Stradlin ... zero.